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Dusting Off the PlayStation Portable

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, March 2, 2008

Once upon a time, tech pundits predicted Sony's PlayStation Portable would be an "iPod killer" because of all its flashy features. But the PSP has suffered from a slightly unfortunate image among gamers and gadget lovers: It's the device that can do pretty much anything, from surfing the Web to playing games, but that actually seems to spend most of its time gathering dust.

As the PSP hits the third anniversary of its U.S. launch this month, Sony is cranking up the fight again. Updates to the operating software have introduced Internet radio stations, for example, and Sony recently made voice-over-Internet service Skype available on the device, meaning that users can make cheap or even free phone calls to anywhere in the world.

Later this year Sony is rolling out a GPS service for the gadget, with which users will be able to navigate the real-world streets with 3-D versions of major U.S. cities, including Washington. A video download store for the PSP is on the way.

But the biggest selling point may be coming this week, with a new game called God of War: Chains of Olympus. It's the latest installment of one of Sony's most popular franchises, and the only version to premiere exclusively on the mobile device. The move represents a serious push for the gadget, which is about the size and shape of a car's rearview mirror.

While not a household name like Halo or Grand Theft Auto, God of War is a big business for Sony. When a sequel was released last spring on the PlayStation 2, it was the No. 1 seller for the month; the next game on the list sold only half as many units. The game's popularity helped Sony's console outsell even the mighty Wii -- if only for a month or so.

Full disclosure: My own PSP sits around ignored most of the time, but an early copy of the blood-soaked game has me pretty psyched about the device again.

The games' star is an angry, muscular Spartan warrior dude named Kratos, who hacks and slashes his way through hundreds of mythical monsters on a mission to avenge something or other. Imagine a set from "Raiders of the Lost Ark," dressed in "Clash of the Titans" wardrobe, and dosed with gore. (Parents, this is not a game for young kids.)

For the non-gamer -- and, okay, maybe even for us gamers -- God of War might look like pretty cheesy stuff, but somehow it works, and the new version is as addictive as its predecessors. I've squandered eight or nine hours of commuting time on the game so far, in any case.

The $40 title will be released in stores Tuesday, but the early write-ups are already in: Chains of Olympus has earned the biggest rave reviews of any title released on the device, according to review aggregate site Metacritic.com.

Now, on the game news sites, a new line is displacing the cliche about the PSP's rep as a dust gatherer: Some say, they're buying Sony's gadget just to check out God of War.

In recent years, tech pundits have sometimes wondered whether Sony would give up on the PSP as a result of what seemed to be ever-lowering expectations for it. Sony had pushed a movie format for use on the device, called Universal Mini Disc, but that sold poorly enough that many major movie studios eventually abandoned it. Sony, naturally, is still supporting the format, a silver disc that's half the size of a DVD.

But Chains of Olympus is showing up at the beginning of a year when the PSP's fortunes have already seemed to be improving, if modestly. Sales were up 10 percent in January over the same period a year ago, according to market research firm NPD Group. Sony recently increased its 2008 worldwide sales projections for the device to 13 million from an earlier estimate of 10 million. The PSP cost $250 when it first launched; a slimmer, updated version runs $170.

Will the macho Kratos be strong enough to pull the PSP to a broader audience? Right now, all the rage is for more mainstream "casual" games, especially on devices like this one where most users probably only want a 10- or 20-minute diversion.

Analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan Securities thinks Sony has taken a wrong step in making PSP games that are too demanding of a player's time -- and not paying enough attention to "casual" games that only require a few minutes.

As a gaming device, the PSP hasn't made much of a dent on Nintendo's audience, he said -- the company has sold twice as many of its own portable device, the DS.

"[Sony is] certainly at the critical mass point where they're making money, but they're not doing as well as they could have," Pachter said.

Though he was an early advocate of the device, Pachter admits he only uses the Sony device on long airplane trips these days. At home, he tends to play classic Mario games on his family's two Game Boys with his daughters.

When the PSP launched in the United States, I quoted Pachter in an article as saying that Sony had finally come up with a world-class device that was a worthy successor to the Walkman. This was a time before the iPhone and even before the iTunes store featured video content; within five years, he said, the iPod would be just a fading memory.

Okay, well, it doesn't look like anybody's forgetting about the iPod just yet. But, as Pachter now says, there's room for more than just one slick gadget in the world.

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